JERUSALEM — FACING intense public scrutiny over perceived failures in allowing the Nov. 4 assassination of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Shin Bet security service may receive a severe dent in its image as Israel's invincible protector.
The head of the Shin Bet security department already has resigned; three other Shin Bet officials have been suspended.
Morale in the organization - formally known as the General Security Service (GSS) - is reported to be at an all-time low. More resignations and suspensions are possible. GSS is Israel's FBI, the main custodian for Israel's internal security.
A judicial inquiry into the Rabin assassination has temporary subdued public debate and official comment. But Shin Bet remains under fire for perceived security lapses, such as failing to form a human shield around Mr. Rabin and not acting on tips that an assassination was being planned. "The biggest failure was one of intelligence," says historian Benny Morris, the author of a definitive history of Israel's intelligence services.
"But I think it is more about a lack of resources and staff than about the failure of a particular person," Mr. Morris told the Monitor. "So there will have to be a diversion of resources to keep tabs on the extreme right."
The anonymous head of the secret organization, known cryptically as Mr. K, reportedly offered to resign soon after the assassination. But Prime Minister Shimon Peres rejected the offer and chided government ministers who criticized the intelligence services.
Intelligence analysts say K's job could be on the line again once the government commission issues its findings later in the year. "Logic demands that he should not stay on in his job after the commission reports," Morris says.
K was appointed in March after a major shake-up in the organization that led to several resignations of senior officials and brought a more youthful profile to the top positions. According to analysts, K was selected, in part at least, for his expert knowledge of Israel's right-wing movements. Accepting K's resignation would present Peres with a thorny problem: It could destabilize the organization when Shin Bet is most needed to counter right-wing extremism and Islamic militancy.
"K holds overall responsibility, but he does not hold operational responsibility for what happened," Yossi Melman, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, told the Monitor. "Holding him responsible might clear the air and show that civil servants are held responsible for their deeds," he said.
"But it could create another storm around the organization and set back the new echelon of younger leaders who came in with K," said Mr. Melman, who specializes in intelligence issues. "There's no doubt that morale is low, and Shin Bet's reputation has been damaged, but this would not be the first scandal that it has survived."
Melman said he thought that the storm around Shin Bet would lead to the organization becoming more accountable and accessible and that Peres, who bore political responsibility for the organization, would become more directly involved. "In the past, prime ministers left most decisions regarding the GSS in the hands of security officials," Melman said. "Now I think Peres will realize that he has to be more hands-on ... in the appointment of the top officials."
Shin Bet, which accepted overall responsibility for the security failure shortly after the killing, has been embarrassed by reports in the Israeli media exposing Avishai Raviv, the head of the extreme right-wing group Eyal, as a Shin Bet informer.
Mr. Raviv, who was held for questioning after the assassination and later released, has denied the charges. So have senior Israeli officials. But an expose by an investigative columnist on Israeli television of Raviv's eight-year association with Shin Bet has gained increasing credence despite the denials.
Self-confessed assassin Yigal Amir was known to be a member of Eyal and friend of Raviv.
Shin Bet has also been embarrassed by the case of reserve soldier Shlomi Halevi, who tipped off the security services about a possible attempt on Rabin's life five months before the killing but withheld Yigal Amir's name, although Mr. Halevi was aware of it.
Shin Bet took the unusual step of publicly confirming the tip-off after it held Halevi for questioning after the assassination.
Some reports also hint at a broader conspiracy casting a wider net than Amir, his brother Hagai, Dror Adani, and a couple of rabbis thought to have sanctioned the killing on religious grounds.
But most experts discount a conspiracy. "There's no question of a conspiracy reaching into the security services," Melman says.